We all know the stories about George Washington. He chopped down a cherry tree, but did not lie about it. He wore wooden teeth and handwrote rules of civility. But cherry trees and wooden teeth do not capture the actual Washington. His greatest legacy lies in resisting the lure of political power.
The War for Independence presented several opportunities for Washington to usurp political power. In 1776 and 1777, Washington received virtually unlimited authority to wage war against the British, but promptly returned these extensive grants when the crises ended. After the war, many suggested Washington claim formal political power—perhaps even become America’s first king. Washington rejected the idea of becoming king as inappropriate and dishonorable. He fought the war for the sake of the American Republic, not for his personal self-aggrandizement.
The behavior of successful generals after a war has tremendous influence on the future of a country. History contains more stories of successful generals who become kings and dictators than of successful generals who become retired generals. But Washington refused to jeopardize the survival of the young republic.
In his farewell orders to his soldiers on November 2, 1783, he defended the new republic and admonished his men to cultivate the civil virtues necessary to its preservation. The republic is indispensible to citizens’ happiness, Washington explained, and the soldiers’ future happiness depends upon how they reentered their communities. The life of a private citizen was not ignoble. Civil society required a different set of virtues from those necessary in warfare: the virtues of “economy, prudence and industry” are as necessary in civil society as “valor, perseverance and enterprise” are on the battlefield. The adventurous among them may seek their fortunes out West. But no matter where his men settled, they ought to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they have been persevering and victorious solders.”
Having dismissed his men and admonished them to embrace civil virtues fit for a republic, Washington voluntarily resigned his military commission weeks later on December 23, 1783 saying: “Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.” Washington continues “having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
Washington voluntarily stepped down from power again, this time after serving two terms as President, prompting King George III to proclaim Washington to have ”the greatest character of the age.” As he admonished his troops, so too would Washington “add his best endeavors to those of his worthy fellow Citizens towards effecting these great and valuable purposes on which our very existence as a nation so materially depends.” For “unless the principles of the federal government were properly supported and the powers of the union increased, the honor, dignity, and justice of the nation would be lost forever.” George Washington is the man who refused to be king—more than once.